In the following America ReFramed UNFILTERED contribution, filmmaker Robin Lung discusses an artistic collaboration and the technique she employed to bring aspects of her subject’s story to life.
After watching Finding KUKAN, people often ask me why I chose shadow theater to illustrate the historic scenes in the film. The scenes track Chinese American playwright Li Ling-Ai’s involvement in the Oscar®-winning documentary KUKAN, and take place in 1930s and 40s Hawaii, New York and China. Li Ling-Ai died before I started the film project, and no one had written a book about her or the topic. It took me years to piece together the information that served as the creative premise for those scenes. Missing details, unverifiable information, and conflated memories plagued me throughout my research. Even New York Times’ newspaper articles from the period left out important parts of the story or repeated inaccurate details. I wanted to use a visual device to illuminate the blurred nature of personal and historical accounts and the role that imagination plays in recreating memory — the language and techniques of shadow theater helped me bring the missing pieces to life.
I spent many months searching for visual solutions on Vimeo and Youtube and finally came across the work of Larry Reed, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area theatrical company ShadowLight Productions. Trained in the traditional form of Balinese shadow puppetry known as wayang kulit, Larry had invented an ingenious shadow casting method, which integrates traditional Balinese shadow theater techniques, cinematic effects, and modern theater and dance styles. When I saw a clip of Larry’s shadow theater rendition of a 1926 poem called “The Wild Party,” I was transfixed. I knew his form of shadow theater could work for my film. It was simultaneously illustrative and impressionistic and reminded me of black and white film noir movies from the 1930s. It also paid tribute to traditional Asian performance arts that Li Ling-Ai studied and promoted during her lifetime. Fortunately, Larry was drawn to Li Ling-Ai’s story and agreed to work with me.
In 2015, the NEA awarded ShadowLight Productions a grant to collaborate with me to produce the shadow scenes for Finding KUKAN. Larry suggested Taiwanese dancer/choreographer Wan-Chao Chang as the perfect fit to play the shadow of Li Ling-Ai. Like Ling-Ai, Wan-Chao had trained in both western modern and traditional Asian dance. Wan-Chao studied archival video and photographs of Li Ling-Ai before choreographing and performing several original pieces that evoke key moments in her life. Before rehearsals started, we cast Bay Area actor Clay David to play the shadow of Li Ling-Ai’s filmmaking partner Rey Scott. Although Wan-Chao and Clay didn’t look like Ling-Ai and Rey in real life, their shadows had an uncanny resemblance to their 1930s counterparts. I often got goosebumps while watching rehearsals, sure that the spirits of my two main characters were in the room.
Rehearsal and filming took place over three and a half weeks in a large warehouse in West Oakland. Larry pulled together a support staff of veteran shadow theater crew who served as electricians, carpenters, artists, costumers, and actors. Using a large 15ft by 30ft screen and specially-designed lights, we worked out shadow scenes that had been storyboarded by visual effects director Chris Do. The crew created and tested props, cut out sets, sewed costumes, and rehearsed shadow movements. Many scenes were quite arduous to produce, and only came together after many days of trial and error. A couple scenes were last-minute brainstorms that came from someone saying, “Why don’t we try this!” The days were long and the warehouse was hot. But working with so many dedicated creative collaborators brought me great joy.
Finding KUKAN was a long and winding journey that took me 8 years to complete. I’m thankful to have collaborated with Larry on these scenes and that it stretched my experience as a storyteller and director. As the documentary genre continues to expand and innovate, I value techniques such as these to help bring to life some of our characters’ pivotal moments especially when our subjects are no longer with us. I hope viewers appreciate the blending together of these various storytelling techniques and get a more nuanced view of Li Ling-Ai’s exuberant approach to her life and its challenges because of them.
Producer/Director Robin Lung is a 4th generation Chinese American who was raised in Hawai‘i. A graduate of Stanford University and Hunter College in NYC, Lung made her directorial debut with Washington Place: Hawai‘i’s First Home, a 30-minute documentary for PBS Hawai‘i about Hawai‘i’s historic governor’s mansion and home of Queen Lili‘uokalani (aired December 2008). She was the associate producer for the national PBS documentary Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority (aired October 2008), Hawai‘i unit producer for acclaimed film Vivan Las Antipodas!, unit producer for NOVA’s Killer Typhoon, and producer/director of the feature documentary Finding KUKAN, which has won awards at HIFF 2016, CAAMFest 2017, and LA APFF 2017; was an official selection of DOC NYC 2016 and SIFF 2017; and is currently screening at festivals around the world. In 2015 she was selected as one of four documentary fellows for the NALIP ARC diverse female filmmaker residency. Her film, Finding Kukan premiered Tuesday, May 8th 8/7 central on AMERICA REFRAMED.
AMERICA REFRAMED is programmed on Tuesday nights @ 8/7c on WORLD Channel. Streaming of the film begins the day after the broadcast on worldchannel.org and all station-branded PBS platforms including PBS.org, and on PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.